London: They say religion is a matter of the heart - but it seems the shape of our brains could also have a role to play.

Believers or those with a spiritual side have ‘thicker’ sections of brain tissue than other people, a study suggests. And in welcome news for the faithful, the researchers think that this thickening could also help to stave off depression.

The US team studied 103 people aged between 18 and 54. They were asked how important religion or spirituality were to them and how often they attended religious services.

Their brains were then examined to determine the thickness of parts of the cortex, or outer layer.

Overall, the researchers found these sections of brain were thickest in people who valued religion or spirituality.

Previous studies by the same scientists have found that religious people are at a lower risk of developing depression. They also discovered that those at the highest risk of depression have thinning cortices.

‘Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain,’ said Dr Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University in New York.

‘The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.’